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  • Pat Libby

Is nasty behavior the new norm for nonprofits?

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately.

Within professional settings, board and staff members are unleashing their nastiness like hissing cats facing menacing dogs. This behavior is disruptive, destructive, and disheartening. It not only saps the energy out of the room, it distracts from the important work at hand.

While it’s a different sector altogether, if you’ve read the headlines about the public’s unleashed interactions at school board and county meetings, you’ll know what I mean. Should we really have to call the police to police meetings?

I’m deeply disappointed in the behavior that I’ve seen at nonprofits because I hold the sector to a higher standard. This is not business as usual.

How did we get here?

First, I think our former president set a low bar that descended into the depth of Hades. It began at the very launch of his candidacy with a disgusting tirade: “When Mexico sends its people…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists…” That speech took the wheels off the bus of decorum, removing any remaining standard of civility across the nation. Sadly, this was only the beginning.

Second, all of us are emotionally exhausted by Covid – regardless of whether we’ve had the misfortune to directly encounter it. We’re crabby because we desperately want things to go back to normal and they’re not. Right now, despite vaccines, mask wearing, and social distancing cases are rising across the country (albeit, principally among the unvaccinated, however, it’s still affecting us all).

Third, we are driving ourselves crazy with Zoom! We’re all aware of “Zoom fatigue” which manifests in many different ways and has been documented extensively. But I’ve also seen Zoom angerpeople spewing venom during meetings that should be civil.

Fourth, nonprofit organizations have taken it on the chin. According to the University of San Diego’s Nonprofit Institute, they’ve either been hit hard by a surging demand for services (social service and health care organizations) or have been hunkered down in survival mode (arts organizations). Thankfully, many nonprofits benefitted significantly from federal bailout funds but folks are still trying to figure out the best way forward – what is the right the balance between remote and in-office work? Should we provide services directly or through Zoom? Should we mandate vaccines for staff and volunteers or allow testing options? What about in-person events versus online gatherings?

And because most nonprofits across the nation are small (in San Diego, only 24% are staffed!), they rely heavily on volunteers to do the heaving lifting which is putting even more stress on already thinly stretched people.

What can we do to change the dynamic?

1. Have a zero-tolerance policy.

Have clear expectations that civility is a requirement for doing business. Give whoever is chairing the meeting the authority to (politely) ask disruptive individuals to reframe their comments/tone or leave the meeting.

2. Reintroduce more face-to-face interaction.

Although I can’t prove this scientifically, my experience is that the type of hostile behavior I’ve described is occurring exclusively in online meetings. I suspect that since a computer provides a virtual wall between meeting participants, it greenlights some people to take their gloves off. The in-person meetings I’ve had lately – with masked staff and board members in many cases – have been delightful and productive. We all miss the energy generated by bouncing ideas off one another. Research suggests that in-person meetings can indeed be vital to productivity. Beware of arguments against in-person meetings such as it’s more convenient, it saves gas, I can attend in my PJ’s…

3. Encourage staff to take time off or find the time to care for themselves.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I do yoga twice a week at the Japanese Friendship Garden in Balboa Park. I’ve recruited many of my clients to join me, and they love it. Yoga may not be your thing, but please find whatever you need to center yourself so that you can bring your best self to the nonprofit you volunteer or work for. It also won’t kill you to take a few days off to smell the roses.

4. Give people the benefit of the doubt.

When you enter into a discussion, please assume that everyone sitting around the table – whether virtual or in person – wants the best for the organization. It’s likely they do! It’s fine to have a healthy disagreement about a policy or strategy, but please try to remember that everyone is there for the common good.




Pat Libby is a nonprofit consultant and author of The Lobbying Strategy Handbook: 10 Steps to Advancing Any Cause Effectively from Oxford University Press. She has served as an academic, senior executive, board member, and consultant to innumerable nonprofit organizations and foundations for more than three decades.

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